Demolishing our past is vandalism in the name of regeneration

How ought buildings created for industries or modes of transport or systems of belief which have fallen into disuse or have disappeared entirely be treated? How much of a nation’s history is expressed in the structures it created?

In the former industrial heartland on the north east coast of England, there was little pause for this question last September. Nadine Dorries, the then-newly installed secretary of state for digital, culture, media, sport – soon to be Boris Johnson’s last apologist – decided in her ignorance to delist the brutalist Dorman Long tower in Redcar so that it might be demolished in the middle of the night.

Dorman Long had been a steel producer and builder of bridges – among them the Sydney Harbor Bridge, China’s Chien Tang road and rail bridge, Cairo’s Khedive Ismail Bridge as well as Lambeth Bridge in London and the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle.

In 2015, the steelworks in Redcar, which had been nationalized in the 1960s, later bought by Tata and finally owned by Thai company SSI, ceased production. But the tower, which used to store coal, still stood. Threatened with demolition in 2021 to make space for regeneration of the area and a freeport – pet projects of the current Conservative government – the tower was granted emergency Grade II-listed status by Historic England on September 13, only for Dorries to rescind four days later , and within hours of her appointment. Her reasoning: it was “essentially a functional structure”.

Spot on, Nadine. But then, tithe barns were functional structures, so were cathedrals, so are, still, railway stations, public toilets, pig sties, MPs’ “second” homes. If she is to apply the essentially functional gauge to every scheme that comes before her for delisting then Dorries and her wrecking balls are going to have a high old time vandalizing and pulverising in the name of “regeneration” – among the great rackets of the age .

It is one of the ironies of this Conservative government that all it struggles to preserve is its own skin.

“Heritage professionals” are practiced in giving great forelock. The toothless Historic England, formerly the toothless English Heritage, responded to this particular demolition by loyally drooling: “We recognize the importance of the public benefits that will come from the remediation and planned regeneration of the whole Teesworks site. We are keen to continue supporting local partners as works progress. ”

Well of course they are. Her department “sponsors” the quango – to the tune of £ 87mn in 2019/20. Historic England has got on for a thousand employees. Quite how they’ll occupy themselves during Dorries’ regime is moot.

What survives is seldom due to the efforts of politicians. Harold Macmillan sanctioned the destruction of the Euston Arch. St Pancras is one of the glories of London. The only people who failed to see it were politicians. Its demolition was proposed several times in the 1960s and 70s. Notable exceptions to the philistine rule were Geoffrey Rippon and Lord Heseltine. What survives, survives because of the efforts of pressure groups: the Victorian Society, the Twentieth Century Society and bloody-minded individuals such as John Betjeman and Gavin Stamp.

What was decried then is celebrated today. Two generations of voters have grown up with an appreciation of late modernism that’s as strong as their parents ‘and grandparents’ fondness for hot-blooded high Victorianism; as strong is their contempt for the agents of its destruction.

Architecture is as subject to fashion as systems of government, car colors, music, food. It crosses boundaries. It does not respect language. It is more potent than its inhabitants. And more potent than its host culture: art nouveau, flamboyant gothic, cubistic modernism and, of course, classicism were adopted by contrasting and opposed regimes. What does not survive is recalled in monochrome books, sad substitutes that foment anger and despisal of the destroyers.

The Conservative government calls its policy to pretend to be doing something in the north of England, including Teesside, “leveling up”. It unveiled its probably mendacious white paper on the subject last week, mostly to a chorus of “is that it?” In the case of Dorman Long, it is literally leveling, razing to the ground.

That does not help. Adapting structures to current needs, making structures that are flexible does help. Architects, who are anyway responsible for only a minority of buildings made, special-plead for their multiple “competencies” as though they are some species of WD40, super versatile. Yet they always yearn to start from zero: their name, their signature, their vision, their vanity.

Creating new buildings from scratch is seldom the wisest route. The late Cedric Price was on the money when he insisted that there is always a case for doing nothing save from reusing what’s already there. Architects should aspire to clever improvisation rather than grand gestures and the chimera of “perfection”.

After all, it must be recalled that the great cathedrals – with the exceptions of Amiens and Salisbury – are works of accretion. What future business in the planned freeport would not have appreciated some tie to legacy – to something longer than the fashion of this government?

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